Today used to be George Washington’s birthday. Yes, I know it still is, but how many people are aware of it nowadays? Instead, we have Presidents Day, always celebrated on the Monday of the week and apparently dedicated to all presidents regardless of merit. Washington had merit; some of the others have had very little.
I mean, do I really have this urge to celebrate the presidencies of Millard Fillmore or Chester Alan Arthur? Am I supposed to rejoice in the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson, the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, or the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson? Should I extol the lack of Christian character in John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton, to name only a few who demonstrated that lack?
There certainly are presidents I admire. Washington served his country without regard to personal desires. He led an army for eight years without pay; he came out of a comfortable life to lead a nation as its first president. Everything he did set a precedent, particularly his model for stepping down after two terms.
My appreciation for Abraham Lincoln grows with each new piece of research on him. Grover Cleveland was, as one biographer tagged him, “an honest president.” Calvin Coolidge understood constitutional limitations and decided not to run again for the office in 1928 because he didn’t want the position and the power to change his character for the worse. Ronald Reagan, in my view, was the most effective president [in the positive sense of actually doing something worthwhile] of the twentieth century.
I wouldn’t mind if we celebrated all of those presidents on their own birthdays. Of course we used to do that with Washington until the 1970s when Congress decided to create three-day weekends for a number of holidays. In the process, they excised a special recognition of our first president. I like three-day weekends as much as anyone, but the decision to relegate Washington to the dim recesses of our history was inexcusable. We do still see representations of him occasionally on Presidents Day when actors dress up like him to sell cars—but that’s about all.
Why do most people not miss it? Perhaps there’s a dismal reason educationally:
Am I kidding? I wish I were. Generally speaking, we don’t know our own history. My experience teaching American history at the university level confirms this sad diagnosis.
Anyway, for those who remember who George Washington was, have a happy Washington’s birthday.